Personal Scrum – Another Story of Applying Agile to Personal Life

Early today, Pete Deemer (who presented at the May 2005 Scrum Gathering – notes from his presentation are about 3/4 of the way down the entry), posted his experiences of using the Scrum framework, with adaptations to manage his personal life. He has graciously consented to sharing his story here.

Pete Deemer wrote:

I wanted to share with you an experiment I’ve been running for the last several months, in hopes that it might spark some interesting conversation. It’s the use of a modified version of Scrum for managing my life, and through trial and error it’s become quite useful in helping me to do a better job accomplishing goals and filling my life with things that make me happy.

It started several months ago when I realized that my life bore some striking similarities to a dysfunctional software development project. Which is to say it was filled with a lot of unclear direction, goals that weren’t being met, responsibilities and obligations going unfulfilled, and important “maintenance” that was being put off again and again – with a net result that “the product” (in other words, the experience of being me) was not all that it could be.

So I set about seeing how Scrum could be applied to improve matters. Here’s what over several months I’ve found worked well for me.
Sprints last one week, and Sprint Planning takes place Sunday nights. I begin by making an estimate of the time I will have available to put toward my goals of the week – typically, this is about 10 hours (or about 1 hour per day during the week, and 2 hours each weekend day). My life backlog has at the top of it a recurring list of items that I consider “must-haves” every week – these are the things that I consider necessary for “the good life” for myself or those around me. I actually have them grouped according to the various personae that comprise “me” – husband, father, son, citizen, learner, body, and so forth. Organizing it this way helps me ensure I don’t overlook an important part of who I am, as I think about what I wish to do in the week; it also allows me to aim for a balance among these different directions. So, for example, under “body”, my standing backlog items might include “take vitamins on 5 mornings”, “do yoga on 3 mornings”, “get 8 hours of sleep on 4 nights”, etc.

The criteria for an item to appear on the backlog is two-part. First, it must be important for “the good life” (now there’s a topic that deserves its own posting if ever there was one). Second, it must be something that might not otherwise happen. So, for example, I don’t need to put “brush teeth” or “go to the bathroom” on the list (or at least I haven’t yet). I began with things that were chore-like (such as taking my vitamins), or which were enjoyable but required forethought and so I tended to miss them (like organizing an outing for my daughter and me). Over time, though, I found it useful to include anything that met the basic criteria above. For example, I love playing computer games; but I was finding that when life got busy, it would be one of the things that got squeezed out. Now it’s an item on the backlog: Play an hour of computer games. It might seem a little odd to in a sense “make a date with oneself to do something that’s akin to goofing off”, but if it’s goofing off that matters, it should be on the backlog.

Each of the recurring items on the backlog has a time estimate associated with it, and these become quite accurate over time, since they come up every week.

Once I’ve gone through the recurring backlog items, I move onto the non-recurring backlog items. These are either one-off things I need to do (“plan family vacation”) or represent small progress against big goals (“complete 1 chapter of mandarin textbook”). I generally only have enough of my budgeted time remaining to commit to one or two of these items, but frankly, that’s one or two more than I was committing to before.

Once I’ve made my commitment, I print up a sheet that lists the tasks and time remaining, and I post it in a very visible place in our house (kitchen wall). I’ll sometimes talk through it with my wife for a few minutes, as a way of making the commitment even more visible and “real”.

Then, just before bed each night, I’ll do my equivalent of the standup meeting — looking at the task list, marking tasks that have been completed, and mentally orienting myself to what I’d like to do tomorrow.

Then, when Sunday rolls around, there’s usually a little scramble to complete some tasks, but Sunday morning is actually a great time to do this. My “Sprint Review” on Sunday evenings consists of looking over the tasks from the week, and giving myself a pat on the back for what I was able to accomplish, and if there are things I wasn’t able to accomplish thinking about why. This leads into planning for the week ahead. In thinking about the week that’s passed, I can adjust some of the goals for the week ahead. For example: if I’ve been feeling dragged out, I might adjust several of the items on the recurring portion of the backlog (increasing 8-hour nights of sleep from 3 to 4, and swimming from 2 days to 3); or if I have a busy work week ahead, I’ll cut back my time budget, and make some calls about tradeoffs.

One of the things I’ve found is that for this approach to be successful, unbudgeted time must still be preserved. In other words, the time you allocate to personal scrum must be only a fraction of the free time you have available. Happiness depends in part on being able to decide on the spur of the moment to do nothing, or do something completely silly and unproductive, and do it without any guilt at all.

One of the areas where the approach falls flat is “non-standard” weeks – for example, going on vacation, or having guests visiting, or other situations where budgeting time in this way is undesirable or
difficult to do.

Overall, this approach has had a positive effect on my life, and the experience has been similar to that of teams I’ve worked with in adopting scrum: greater sense of clarity of direction, repeated satisfaction of accomplishment, greater confidence in setting personal goals, and a greater sense of contentment and peace around living up to one’s responsibilities and opportunities.

I’d love to hear about others’ experiences with other Scrum- or Agile-based life management techniques.

Affiliated Promotions:

Register for a Scrum, Kanban and Agile training sessions for your, your team or your organization -- All Virtual! Satisfaction Guaranteed!

Please share!

5 thoughts on “Personal Scrum – Another Story of Applying Agile to Personal Life”

  1. I’d be curious to know how this is going 8 years on. You come up near the top of the results of scrum for life

    1. Good question – as a family, we have tried in a number of ways to use Scrum and Agile techniques for doing general life stuff / family stuff, but the success has been limited. It’s great for motivations kids, but there are too many unexpected changes day by day in our life to have a real Sprint plan. We did some variations on using Scrum that, along with other experiences, led to the development of OpenAgile. And we use many agile practices in running our business (which is part family-owned). I’ll think about what I can write as a full follow-on article – thanks for the Ping on this!

  2. What do you describe is very similar to the metholodogy of Stephen Covey in the book “First thing first”, you have to read that.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.